Curtain opens. Spotlight on centre stage.
Although Angry Birds has become a more popular way to pass the time than attending a show at your local theatre, not everyone sees it as a dying art.
For Ryerson University Theatre School graduate Michelle Barker, theatre was something she simply had to pursue. Often seen as a cushy industry, there is so much more to theatre than meets the eye.
I had the chance to go “behind the scenes” with Michelle to find out how she broke into theatre and what she’s learned from her experiences.
Enter Michelle, stage left.
What made you want to get involved in theatre to begin with?
Michelle: I’ve been involved in theatre since I was young. I started out in musical theatre in school and got involved with some community theatre and theatre camps. It became more of an obsession in high school. I started writing and directing shows then, and realized that writing was more my passion. I’m obsessed with words and there is nothing like the feeling of seeing them interpreted onstage.
What brought you to Ryerson?
Michelle: One of my older friends went to Ryerson the year before me and it was pretty well known at the time that Ryerson was one of the best schools to go to for theatre (I say “at the time” because top theatre schools change constantly for a variety of reasons). I applied to three schools for film and one for theatre. I got accepted to all the film schools first, but I knew I wanted to go to Ryerson and forgot all about the others once I got my acceptance there.
What did your program entail?
Michelle: Our program really covered everything to do with theatre. In first and second year, we had to take a more generalized curriculum that included lighting, sound, management, costuming, set design/drafting, carpentry, theatre history, and a million other things. In the last two years, students generally specialize in their field of interest. I specialized in Stage Management and Playwrighting.
During each semester, you are also assigned to a role for a show. The season at the school has around 12 shows, ranging in size and taking place in various stages and spaces in the school. In first year, you have to be a production assistant on one show per semester. In upper years, you can request show calls in your field of interest.
When you combine these show calls with courses and course work, theatre school students put in some of the highest number of hours of all programs in the university. Work-life balance doesn’t really exist and the people who don’t really want to be there get weeded out quickly.
How do you find work in this industry?
Michelle: Most of my work comes from connections that I made in theatre school. One of the major advantages of going to theatre school is the people that you meet, particularly through your show calls. I’ve worked with most of the professionals who were brought in during my time at Ryerson after my graduation.
Honestly, though, the theatre community is really small. Once you start doing shows, you meet a huge network of people really quickly. Everyone is really supportive of each other’s work, so you can meet the greatest people in theatre just by sitting in an audience.
Would you say this is a difficult industry to get involved in?
Michelle: It is and it isn’t. There’s always people looking for help on a show and there’s always opportunities to volunteer and get started. It just depends on how married you are to the idea of having a steady paycheque. Whether people realize it or not, though, theatre is huge in Toronto. It’s huge and exciting and everywhere and very accessible. People just need to access it.
What major skills have you developed through this line of work?
Michelle: I don’t even know where to start. I imagine theatre doesn’t seem like it would have a lot of transferable skills in the “real world”, but everything I’ve learned while working in theatre has been hugely helpful in most parts of my life. For example, I work in retail right now and some of the best people in sales are actors and performers. Quite simply, they get people. They’re genuine, and that goes a long way.
Stage management has given me scheduling skills, interpersonal skills, problem-solving skills, organizational skills…it’s such a multi-faceted job, and I find myself using aspects of it literally every single day.
What challenges have you faced as you’ve started your career?
Michelle: Well, “theatre degree” doesn’t sound as good to high-paying employers as “business degree” or “engineering degree” probably does, so I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m either going to be a starving writer for the rest of my life or I’m going to be working a joe-job until I have grey hairs. Either way, I know I love theatre and I’ll be devastated if a time comes when I’m removed from it. It’s not an easy gig right now, but people are still making it work; because it’s theatre and I think there are enough people in Toronto who think it’s important for it to stay alive. At least, I hope.
Music starts. Michelle exits.